Katie has been a certified fitness professional for twenty years and holds ten fitness certifications, including Spinning Elite and Personal Training. She has shared her expert knowledge in many fitness outlets like Bicycling & Verywellfit.
Ever taken a spin class or ridden your bike and encountered a little knee pain afterward? Read on to learn what might be causing cycling-related knee pain and how to fix it.
Are Spin Bikes Bad for Knees?
Cycling can be incredibly gentle on the knees if done correctly, as it is considered low impact. In fact, research shows that stationary cycling exercise relieves pain and improves sports function in individuals with knee osteoarthritis. However, common riding mistakes are why people experience knee pain, not the bikes themselves. For example, I have had a meniscus tear in my left knee for eight years, but I can still ride pain-free as long as my form is on point.
Just because indoor cycling is a low-impact exercise doesn’t mean that riding a spin bike will not stress your body. Exercise is all about placing stress on your body and having your body continue to adapt.
Is Knee Pain Normal After a Spinning/ Indoor Cycling Class?
Thinking knee pain is the usual aftermath of an indoor cycling class? Think again. You should not be experiencing knee pain regularly after taking your favorite spin class or enjoying a ride on your bike at home. Although it might seem easier to accept knee pain as something you must endure after a ride, it is likely that the reason for your knee pain is user error and can be avoided or diminished.
Reasons Why You Might Have Knee Pain During Indoor Cycling
Bike Set-Up: If you have read any of my cycling articles, then you know what a stickler I am about the importance of the proper bike setup. So many issues on the bike can be resolved with the bike when the correct setup enables the proper riding form. One of the biggest bike set-up mistakes I see in class is people riding with their bike seats too low. A low seat will cause too much flexion in your knee throughout the pedal stroke, which causes excessive stress on the knee joint. In contrast, your seat being too high will cause you to reach and point your toe at the bottom of the stroke, which can also bother your knees and ankles.
Riding Form: Check to ensure your knees drive to the front throughout the pedal stroke. Knee pain can be expected if your knees tend to track towards the outside of your bike during your stroke.
You’re a Masher: As a reformed masher myself, I understand aching knees after class. A “masher” is someone who primarily focuses on the downward portion of the pedal stroke. This is very common towards the end of class as people become tired or during high-intensity bouts of interval work. Mentally focus on driving your knees up instead of pressing down, which will help alleviate knee stress.
Wearing Street Shoes: Although toe cages are incredibly convenient since they allow you to ride in your regular sneakers, they do not secure your foot as well as a cleat. Focusing on the 360-degree pedal stroke is also harder, so many toe cage riders don’t realize they are mashing in the downstroke.
Sprinting Without Resistance: Sprinting without enough resistance can wreak havoc on your joints, especially your knees. Make sure you feel resistance on every pedal stroke in a seated run or sprint. A good indicator that your resistance isn’t high enough is that your glutes cannot maintain contact throughout the pedal stroke. I always describe it to my classes as if you look and feel like you are riding on a bumpy dirt road- you need to add more resistance.
Too Much Resistance: Adding too much resistance can also be a reason for post-ride knee pain. High resistance and focusing on pushing down rather than a 360-degree stroke can lead to excessive stress on knee joints.
Performing Jumps: Performing jumps increases the intensity and stress placed on the joints. Therefore, if you are experiencing knee pain regularly during class, try to perform longer stretches in and out of the saddle rather than short bursts.
Overtraining: The repeated stress from exercise can start to wear on your body if it is not allowed the proper time to recover. We are not asking you only to ride once or twice a week but to switch up your rides. Five days of tough interval rides a week will lead to overtraining and maybe even burnout. Throwing in other riding profiles like endurance rides or longer climbs will help keep your body healthy and give you additional fitness gains.
How to Avoid Knee Pain When You Cycle?
Proper Bike Set-Up: Here are a few points to consider to ensure your bike set-up is on point for a great ride. First, when your foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke, you should have a slight bend in your knee of about 15 percent. If you cannot keep your foot flat at the bottom of the pedal stroke, this is a clear indicator that your seat is too high. The following set-up check is stopping your pedals when they are parallel to the floor. Next, focus on the foot closest to the bike‘s front and check your knee position. Aim for the knee to be over the ball of your foot. If your knee is marking closer to your toes, your seat needs to move backward.
In contrast, if your knee is closer to your ankle, your saddle might need to come forward. On most cycles, the saddle can move one click forward and one-click up while keeping your knee in the same position. The same applies to the saddle, moving one click down and one click away from the handlebars.
Invest in Cleats: Cleats are worth the investment as they help with proper body alignment throughout the stroke, which helps to decrease the chance of injury. Still not convinced? Cleats also increase power output during saddle sprints by ten percent!
Think About Your Stroke: Even as a Spinning Instructor, I will sometimes notice my form getting a little relaxed if I have taught multiple classes that day or throughout the week. Focus on making a full pedal stroke with an emphasis on knees lifting towards your chest at the top.
How to Reduce The Knee Pain After the Indoor Cycling?
There are many solutions to reduce knee pain after an indoor cycling session. Here are a few remedies to try:
No, when we talk about R.I.C.E., we aren’t reminding you to eat whole grains (which is essential too!). Still, instead, we are referring to Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation, especially if your knee pain also includes swelling. So let’s break each of these components down a little further.
Rest: Sometimes, the best medicine for an ailment is taking some time off. Overtraining or simply not allowing enough recovery time between workouts can exacerbate a knee issue. Taking a few days off in between workouts, especially until any swelling subsides, can help you get back on the road to recovery.
Ice: It is pretty remarkable what twenty minutes and an ice pack can do to help your knee pain subside. Ice helps to decrease swelling and discomfort by reducing circulation to that area through the constriction of blood vessels. Remember never to place an ice pack on just bare skin, as this has the potential to cause tissue damage if left on too long. Cycling through twenty minutes on and twenty minutes off with your ice pack is a useful approach to ice therapy.
Compression: Compression helps to reduce swelling, maintains efficient blood flow, and provides support to your knee. Knee wraps, sleeves, and tape can provide the compression needed for a bit of relief.
Elevation: Elevating your knee is especially important if you are experiencing noticeable swelling. The key to successful elevation is ensuring your knee is elevated above your heart. So grab a pillow, lay on the couch, and enjoy a little rest and relaxation.
Important Note: R.I.C.E. is one treatment plan available. If you are experiencing pain, you should always speak with your doctor to find out the best course of action for you, as treatment options will vary from person to person.
2. Pain Relievers, Ointments, and Creams
The use of medications such as Tylenol or Ibuprofen is another option when trying to diminish post-ride knee pain. If you prefer to avoid taking a pill, many creams and ointments are also available on the market. Everyone is different, so it might take a little time to find which pain remedy works best for you. My favorite ointment to use on aching joints is BioFreeze.
If you are not experiencing swelling but just discomfort after a ride, heat is another option for relief. Heat therapy could come from a heating pad, hot water bottle, hot tub, or, my favorite choice, a relaxing bath. Unlike ice, this treatment should not be repeated throughout the day, and one fifteen to twenty-minute session should suffice.
4. Sports Tape
Sports tape, also known as Kinesiology Tape, is fantastic for recovery and pain relief for sore muscles and joints. There are a wide variety of brands available on the market.
5. See Your Doctor
It is vital to know when it is time to go and see your doctor. I have to admit there has been a time or two when I waited too long to go and get an injury checked out. Your knee is part of your kinetic chain. This means that it isn’t uncommon for you to begin to experience pain in your ankle, hip, or back on the same side as the injured knee as they all work as a team. Therefore, if your knee pain is becoming chronic, it might be time to go see a professional before other joints begin to bother you as well.
Other Common Indoor Cycling Injuries
Although knee pain is the most shared ailment associated with indoor cycling, there are few others to discuss. As we have explained, knee pain is most commonly due to improper bike set-up and riding form, these other common cycling injuries can often be remedied with a form check.
Low Back: Long durations in the saddle can cause lower back issues for outdoor riders, but indoor riders can experience this issue as well, especially when riding with insufficient resistance. This can be caused by repeated jarring and excessive hip movement while pedaling with light resistance. Adding enough resistance to help your glutes remain in contact with the saddle will help.
Ankles and Feet: Overtraining can lead to ankle and foot issues through repeated stress. Checking that your bike set-up is correct and you are not having to point at the bottom of rotation continually, will help to decrease stress on your ankles. In addition, continuing to invest and replace your shoes or cleats will help support your feet and ankles.
Shoulders & Upper Back: The combination of tight pecs from working at a desk and a rounded shoulder riding position can increase shoulder and upper back discomfort. Instead, focus on opening your chest and relaxing your shoulders to decrease tension and stress on these muscles.
Saddle Soreness: Saddle soreness is prevalent among newer riders. This is due to improper bike set-up and incorrect riding form. If your set-up and form are on-point, a gel seat or cycling shorts should remedy the situation.
Katie is the creator of MT Girl Fitness and has been a certified fitness professional for almost twenty years. She currently holds ten different fitness certifications, including Group Fitness, Spinning Elite, Rockstar Spinning, and Personal Training. Fitness is her passion, and she loves seeing her clients reach goals they never imagined.